UN Reform and the Future of International Law
In yesterday’s New York Times, we find an article in which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan bemoans the difficult year the UN has had in 2005. In particular, Annan gripes about the difficulties in creating a new Human Rights Council that will not have to seat notorious human rights violators like Sudan, the grueling ordeal of the oil-for-food scandal, and the problems the UN is having in passing its budget. Relatedly, in today’s Times, we read that while talks between the EU-3 and Iran about Iran’s nuclear program are resuming, there is little hope for significant progress. The main obstacles here are the resistance of Russia and China to referring the matter to the UN Security Council and, of course, Iran’s insistence on its right to develop an indigenous nuclear program that includes enrichment technology.
The common thread, and the largest problem in the development of meaningful and effective international law, is the problem of sovereignty. The UN was created in the aftermath of World War II with two main purposes: the prevention of large-scale inter-state conflict and the protection and promotion of state sovereignty (especially in the wake of the demise of the European colonial powers). Now, however, the purpose of the UN is changing. Inter-state war is no longer perceived as the primary threat to international security, in a large part due to the overwhelming dominance of American military and political hegemony. “Human security” issues like human rights and the prevention of genocide have risen on the security hierarchy, and the “hard” security issues that do exist, like terrorism or proliferation, have a much larger intra-state dimension to them. The problem is that the UN is not well suited to dealing with internal issues. If Russia and China refuse to allow the IAEA to refer Iran to the Security Council, the UN will be unable to act. If enough developing countries resist making membership on UN committees like the Human Rights Council contingent on meeting certain standards (and it’s also likely that Russia and China would object as well), the UN will be unable to act.
What can be done to make international law more credible, enforceable, and relevant? In the short- to near-future, it’s almost impossible to imagine any serious reform transforming the UN into a body capable of handling these kind of issues. While some people may dream of a truly international body that can enforce international law, perhaps it may be time to give that dream up. International law is at its best when it works through inducements (like the WTO) rather than coercion (like UN sanctions). Yes, the WTO has a punishment mechanism, but it really works by promoting cooperation in order to obtain long-term benefits of free trade and open markets. The UN has little to offer countries in order to get compliance on thorny and truly important issues, like nuclear proliferation or genocide. Inducements work best between like-minded countries that see common ground in their national interests. So, perhaps the international system should become bifurcated. The UN can continue to deal with the global issues at which it actually does reasonably well, such as the WHO or UNICEF, and could remain as a global forum to provide peacekeeping and prevent interstate war. Those countries interested in expanding the scope and power of international law could set up their own organization, like the EU, WTO, or NATO, in which sovereignty is curtailed to a greater degree and members gain serious benefits as a payment for cooperation. Of course, this is exceedingly unlikely, but I just don’t ever see the UN, hobbled by sovereignty and vetoes, as being effective.